England has become so obsessed with coffee that it’s forgotten how to make a decent brew. It’s important. George Orwell was once moved to abandon dystopian novels for long enough to write a detailed treatise on how to make the perfect cuppa. Although he got the order of milk and tea wrong, you have to respect the man for trying, which is more than can be said for the coffee booths springing up along station platforms like Chinese knotweed.
What would Orwell have made of our caffeine-obsessed society, trampling afternoon tea underfoot? Englishmen once swung from pinioned ropes on north faces while putting kettles on, even returning to base camp for forgotten tea strainers at the cost of lives. What would these pioneers of the now heart chilling phrase ‘on-the-go’ have made of the derisory attempts at making tea by these prevalent coffee booths?
It might sound like a first world problem, but the important things are the simple things, and a restorative tea, unlike a yacht, is achievable, at least it was. You can buy coffee on every platform from here to there, but you dare ask for tea, and the only strain is on the face of the coffeeista (or whatever it is they call themselves).
I join the queue, listening to an incomprehensible array of orders for flat whites, dark lattes and double beans. Aware it’s my turn, I ask for a tea, but my request isn’t clear, as they continue to draw aerial maps of Hong Kong’s underground network into coffee froth. Once they’ve passed these coffees across with the reverence of some cultish ritual, they ask if I want a large or medium one. What? A tea? Fuck knows. There’s no small? Isn’t it all just one teabag? When was small upgraded to medium? This all goes unsaid other than – Do I get two tea bags in the large? No. So, it’s the same isn’t it? – The cups cost the same, the water costs the same…Once they’ve made this state of affairs look like my fault, they sling a teabag in a paper cup like it’s stung them, and fill it halfway with tepid water. Want me to take it out? What? The teabag you’ve just put in? No thanks. But can I have more water? They reluctantly top it up, looking curious as to why I’m still waiting. For it to brew, I resist telling them, before worrying, in a flurry of paranoia, that they are doing this on purpose.
I can see them wondering if the opportunity to call the police has passed, while I silently, and at a patient length, explain how tea needs time to brew. Yes, at the cost of missing trains. Coffee has no turn-around time, like the fast-living culture it represents. It’s an explosion of noise from the ‘espresso-machine’ and it’s done; like a hand grenade. With tea, you loiter until it turns to the preferred colour that you could recognise in the dark.
This delay in the teabag brewing through water too cold to shower in clearly bothers the coffeeista. Want me to take the teabag out now? They enquire anxiously. No thanks. Milk? And before I can prevent them, they’ve sluiced in enough milk to displace the tea entirely. Aghast, I stare at tea now matching the shade of its white cup, thus requiring the teabag to stay in for another five minutes.
Seeing me finally taking out the teabag they’re so relieved I half expect applause. Want sugar? Watching the shovel of sugar approaching the cup, I ask if I might add sugar myself. This is met with utter disbelief that I have further ideas as to how I enjoy my own tea. They watch me stir in an amount so exact it even irritates me.
As they pass on their disdain by charging the amount it costs to buy a box of 40 teabags, I consider buying a thermos flask, but who cares about tea that much…?